It was easy enough for Hugh Freeze and his army of longtime enablers in the Ole Miss administration to write off a stray one-minute, out-of-context phone call to an escort service in January 2016 as a misdial. Happens all the time, he said. The number? It hadn’t appeared again in his tens of thousands of calls made on university-issued phones. Nothing there, the school claimed.
But by early last week, Ole Miss officials knew the press was still pursuing the story and that Houston Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, had raised it in e-mails to school officials that would eventually be released through the Mississippi Public Records Act.
They also knew that Mars had requested phone records covering Freeze’s entire tenure, and if there was one potentially embarrassing call in the handful of days he already had, what more might he find? Given how vehemently Ole Miss had defended Freeze — not just on his rules compliance, but his character — it was crucial the school get the coach to tell them everything that might be coming.
And though it’s still unclear how much Freeze admitted to and what exactly Ole Miss found out before the lay-your-cards-on-the-table meeting that led to his forced resignation last Thursday, we now know it was embarrassing enough to crumble, within hours, a uniquely tight relationship between a coach and administration — and a contract worth almost $5 million per year.
Rest assured, we are still closer to the beginning of this sordid story than the end. Details will come out. People who knew the double life Freeze was leading will come forward.
And suddenly, the question of what Ole Miss officials knew and when did they know it will become central to the narrative of how the school moves forward.
There’s no reason to be coy here: Whispers about Freeze’s personal behavior have followed him since long before he became a college head coach. But at every stop along the way, it was difficult to do much with those rumors because so many people who were around him on coaching staffs and in athletic departments spoke so highly of him. His public embrace of Christianity, and the genuinely good charitable work he did, provided good cover and an easy narrative for all those glowing national newspaper profiles. Those who doubted his genuineness were written off as jealous or agenda-driven.
Even on Monday after the reality settled in, people who knew Freeze at various stops along the way were dumbfounded. Dean Lee, the former Arkansas State athletics director who gave Freeze his first FBS head coaching job, said he did extensive background checks on Freeze and found nothing that would raise a red flag.
“Never a scent of anything that would have been inappropriate,” Lee said. “This is totally out of the blue. I don’t know what to think and what to believe.”
But if you’re Ole Miss — a school that hired him, kept extending his contract, gave him more and more money and threw people under the bus to protect him in a massive NCAA infractions case — how is it possible you knew nothing for five-plus years and then decided in a matter of a couple days that he needed to be gone?
Heck, just last Monday at a booster event in Memphis, Bjork praised Freeze to the local ABC affiliate, saying he has built “the culture that’s right for our university” despite the very serious allegations of NCAA misconduct against him.
That interview, mind you, took place after Bjork was made aware that national reporters were sniffing around a phone call to an escort service. Presumably, Bjork would not have been so effusive had he known that Freeze would be gone 72 hours later — or if he even had doubts about Freeze’s virtue.
Is it plausible that, in those 72 hours between Bjork’s interview and the forced resignation of his coach, Ole Miss could have done the kind of investigative work necessary to find real dirt on Freeze among those tens of thousands of calls it said it examined?
Something doesn’t add up here, and the answers provided by Ole Miss thus far are simply not sufficient given the level of scandal this already is and could soon become.
One of the narratives developing in Oxford since Thursday is that Freeze’s double life was the subject of small-town gossip over the past year. If true, it would be impossible for key people at Ole Miss not to have caught wind of it.
And yet, the tone of the school’s defensiveness over Freeze didn’t waver, didn’t change until the moment he resigned.
“I’ve never been around a man who runs his program with a high level of character and integrity,” Bjork said in May 2016 during an appearance on the Paul Finebaum Show. “He really talks less about football than any coach I’ve been around. It’s about life, teaching, educating and preparing these young men for the future. To me, that’s the starting point and the foundation. If you do all those things correctly, then the football stuff will come easy.”
Bjork, who is widely viewed as one of the top young administrators in college athletics, has a lot of friends in the business. Even a year ago, as the NCAA’s case unfolded, some of them winced about his all-in backing of Freeze. While administrators know their success in many ways is tied to how their high-profile coaches perform, no athletics director wants to be taken down because they were blind to something their most important employee was hiding from them.
While it’s true that Freeze was forced to resign because of his personal issues, and not the NCAA case, they are inexorably linked together. When Ole Miss submitted its response to the NCAA last month, it argued not only that Freeze had nothing to do with the program’s consistent and widespread rule-breaking but that he couldn’t have because of his high character and ethics.
Without a defense built around Freeze’s personal virtue, the school has very little to hang its hat on in front of the Committee on Infractions.
If anyone at Ole Miss was skeptical of Freeze, they didn’t do a very good job of showing it publicly or even privately. And now that they’ve been humiliated, nobody would blame the school for sweeping the entire administration out and starting over.
But if Ole Miss even had an inkling before last Thursday that something was amiss with Freeze’s behavior and did nothing about it, this story becomes something far more sinister and cynical. The school may have cut ties with its coach, but with Mars pushing forward for more information on behalf of Nutt and the media finally asking questions, Ole Miss is far from being done with Freeze.
source: usa today